Well, maybe it wasn't so "elegant" per se once upon a time- it was more of a necessity.
Rillettes, most commonly pork, happen to be one of those types of potted foods.
In many ways rillettes is similar to a pâté or a confit.
It's normally meat that is slowly cooked in fat, shredded, seasoned, and packed into jars or pots with an extra layer of fat poured on top. The purpose of the extra fat is to keep the food from going bad since it provides a seal, blocking anything harmful from getting in.
Salmon is quicker to prepare and also makes a lighter version of rillettes than it's meat counterparts (pork, rabbit, goose, duck). This lightness is in large part due to the fact that fish is a leaner protein than many of the other options. While salmon in particular is not as lean as some other aquatic possibilities (but as a side note the fat in salmon is good fat!), it still has nowhere near the amount of fat that a pig does.
To round things out, some fat is added to the salmon, and thus butter becomes a suitable substitute for what the fish lacks.
All rillettes have fat. Really, a salmon version is lighter than other types, I promise.
The egg and crème fraîche additions help bring a bit more richness to the rillettes without being excessive.
The results are creamy and meaty, a little smokey with a bit of zing.
Flavors improve and meld after several hours in the refrigerator, so making this a day ahead is recommended. Besides, if it's made ahead it saves you from last-minute stress.
It's got more of a meaty texture than pate, but it's still a spreadable appetizer.
adapted from Thomas Keller's Bouchon
makes about 3 c
1 lb. (453 g) raw fresh salmon, pin bones and skin removed
1 1/2 t (12 g) kosher salt
4 sprigs thyme
1/4 t (1 g) freshly ground pepper (As an aside, Keller uses white, but I personally don't like it's scent or taste. I'm not saying this is the way for Keller, but many times it's particular purpose is only aesthetic within a recipe. Frankly, I don't mind the look of black.)
1 T (15 ml) white wine
zest of 1 lemon
8 T (113 g) unsalted butter, at room temperature (divided, 1 T and 7 T)
1/2 c (60 g) minced shallots
generous 1 T (32 g) crème fraîche
4 oz (113 g) smoked salmon, diced and room temperature
2 T (30 ml) fresh lemon juice
1 T (15 ml) extra virgin olive oil
2 large egg yolks (organic if possible), lightly beaten
8 oz (113 g) butter
Place the salmon on a large dish or shallow pan. Sprinkle the salt all over with salt and pepper, thyme and lemon zest. Pour the white wine over the salmon, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate a hour, turning once halfway through.
Bring a couple inches of water to a simmer over medium heat in the bottom of a steamer. Place the salmon in a steamer basket above the simmering water, reduce the heat and cover. You should not see steam coming out the side of the lid- if so, reduce the heat. Cook about 8-10 minutes, until the salmon is medium-rare (check the center by using a sharp knife to look between the center layers). Remove the salmon from the steamer and set aside on a plate.
Saute the shallots in 1 T butter about 2 minutes. Add 1/4 t (2 g) salt and saute a couple minutes longer until the shallots are softened and translucent, not at all browned. Set aside to cool.
Whip the 7 T softened butter in a medium bowl with a rubber spatula until smooth and the consistency of mayonnaise. Fold in the crème fraîche until combined.
Flake the cooked salmon in large pieces into a large bowl. Add the smoked salmon, lemon juice, olive oil, and egg yolks. Gently stir to combine. Fold in the whipped butter mixture. Season the mixture to taste, but generously, with salt and pepper (as the rillettes will be served cold, you want to make sure the flavors are present).
Spoon the rillettes into a terrine, small jars, or ramekins (several smaller containers are probably best if you don't have a large group to eat the rillettes all at once). Leave at least 1/2 inch space between the top of the rillettes and the rim. When packing the rillettes into the dishes, try to remove any air pockets. Smooth the surface with the back of a spoon and wipe the top and inside of the rim clean.
Refrigerate the rillettes 1 hour
To quick-clarify butter and seal the pots of rillettes, melt the butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Do not disturb the milk solids that have fallen to the bottom of the pan, you want them to remain separate from the rest of the butter. Spoon off any foam or solids that float to the top. Skim the clear melted butter from the pan and spoon over the cold containers of rillettes. Let sit a moment so the butter thickens a bit then place the containers back into the refrigerator.
Refrigerate at least several hours before serving.
Before serving, remove the layer of butter. Serve with toast points or thinly sliced baguette, cornichons, capers, chives, parsley, and/or Dijon mustard.
Once the butter has been removed, eat the rillettes within 2 days.
Consume all rillettes within a week.